America's Great Double Standard

I find incomprehensible - and completely unacceptable - the weak-spined approach of those who have been negotiating with the tobacco industry.

I join the son of Hubert Humphrey, Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, who says he doesn't want to be identified with proposals that fail to give the Food and Drug Administration full authority over tobacco and nicotine as a drug, that grant full or partial immunity to the tobacco cartel, or that provide damages so inadequate that they send tobacco stocks soaring.

Let's put it this way: Why should the American public be willing to accept a compromise with an industry that is peddling an addictive drug that has proved to be a killer?

Oh, I know, there's that argument about how people make their own decision on whether to smoke or not. I remember back in the 1920s when women hadn't started to smoke. Then the cigarette companies went after the female market with an intense advertising campaign. The sophisticated and fun-loving woman was depicted holding a cigarette. Then another approach made an especially attractive tug on women: "Reach for a Camel instead of a sweet," it trumpeted on big billboards all over the country.

In the mid-1950s I traveled from coast to coast looking into - and then writing about - how the consumption of liquor was hurting Americans. I also picked up information about our tobacco problem. While doing so I met a former advertising executive who had been the author of that Camel ad. He told me that he had been part of the tobacco industry's conscious effort to persuade women to smoke. He said he was full of guilt for what he had done.

Did all those millions of women decide almost overnight on their own (it happened very fast) to smoke? Nonsense. The tobacco companies lured them. I have absolutely no sympathy for excuses given for what they did.

I'm just as unrelentingly critical and unforgiving of the liquor companies for the harm they are doing to people with their ads that make it appear that drinking is part of becoming popular and successful - and that it is absolutely necessary to having a good time.

My findings back in the '50s are as valid now as then: The consumption of liquor damages the lives of millions. More than 50 percent of highway fatalities then and now are drinking-related. Male abuse of wives and children usually has a drinking connection. Productivity of workers is greatly reduced through liquor-related illness and needed time off. The list goes on. We all know someone whose life has been tragically impaired because of drinking.

AT a Monitor breakfast with Vice President Al Gore in Chicago last August (while the Democrats were having their national convention), I prefaced a question with this comment: "It's amazing how fast public attitudes on smoking have changed in this country, from acceptance to nonacceptance." Then I asked: "Do you think this might happen to public attitudes toward liquor?"

The night before meeting with us, Mr. Gore had lashed out hard at the tobacco industry. But he wasn't ready to do this with liquor. Instead, he commented on the progress being made in persuading people not to drink and drive and said that drinking sensibly was the goal in a society where consuming alcoholic beverages was a part of our culture.

That may be as far as a politician believes he can go on that subject in a country where drinking is so widespread. But I would have liked it if the vice president had said: "Well, I wish we could do something about the excessive drinking of young people. I wish that having a good time wasn't so often portrayed in a scene where liquor is being consumed."

I'd still like to think that there could be a dramatic turnaround of our attitudes toward drinking.

Maybe early in the next century?

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